Law enforcement officials have a nasty habit: using a process called civil asset forfeiture to seize, and keep, the money and property of individuals who are never charged with a crime.

Some departments use asset forfeiture to fund their normal operations. Others seem to do it simple because they can. A local investigation into how asset forfeiture has been used in Massachusetts is a case study in how bad the practice has become:

Civil forfeitures are big business in Worcester County, where [Joseph ] Early has been the elected district attorney since 2006. His office brought in nearly $4 million in forfeitures in just the latest four years, from fiscal 2017 through 2020, according to analyses by the state’s trial court.

Where that money goes is notable. In almost all cases, the proceeds are split 50/50 between the Worcester County district attorney’s office and the local or state police department that handled the seizure. That’s legal in Massachusetts, but it’s a system rife with conflicts of interest because the offices confiscating the money also stand to benefit from it, lawyers and civil rights advocates say.

Early has been criticized by the state auditor for spending forfeiture funds on a Zamboni ice-clearing machine and tree-trimming equipment. Over the years, his office has posted photos on its website of Early handing out checks for “Drug Forfeiture Community Reinvestment,” to pay for baseball and softball fields or to support a cheerleading team.

Early said he’s proud of using drug dealer’s money to help the community. It appears what he’s really doing is taking money from people never charged with crimes – in essence “preying on the poor”:

WBUR’s analysis of Worcester County forfeitures from 2017 through 2019 found that more than half of the seizures in these cases were for less than $500. In one incident, Fitchburg police seized $10 from a man listed as homeless. In another, Sturbridge police took $10 from a 14-year-old boy.

That’s not law enforcement. It’s a shakedown, and it needs to be brought to a swift conclusion. If law enforcement wants to seize someone’s money or property, fine. They can do it after that person has been convicted of a crime. Never before.